Eshkol Nevo (Photo: Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images)

Eshkol Nevo: Unimaginable correspondence

Today “we tend to limit ourselves to a single point of view”, but literature is where “we feel close to the most distant, where the most estranged becomes familiar.” From the January issue of Tracce, a dialogue with the Israeli writer Eshkol Nevo
Anna Leonardi

"There are people you trust so much that you play heads or tails with them over the phone.” The stories of Israeli author Eshkol Nevo emerge from his pen to go in search of such men and women. The characters that populate his novels are always moving towards others, seeking a stable point within the fickleness of the world. This is what happens in Symmetry of Desires, among his best-known novels where four friends, not yet 30 years old, decide to write their greatest wishes in an envelope during the World Cup final of ’98, to be opened four years later. None will succeed in fufilling their dreams, but life, with its burden of pain, will change them to such an extent that each will fulfill the other's wish, in a game of unimaginable correspondence.
Nevo’s storytelling – who was a pupil of Amos Oz and grandson of Levi Eshkol, Israel's prime minister during the Six-Day War – knows how to be tender and brutal at the same time: it takes nothing away from discomfort, it does not alleviate the torment. But he lets the raw material of his stories be imbued with a force that drives his characters to go beyond the surface, in search of a continuous resurrection. In Three Stories, a novel from which director Nanni Moretti made the film of the same name, Hani, a young mother overwhelmed by immense loneliness and the shadow of psychosis, realizes that she is "falling apart." It will be her conscience that will suggest the way to get herself back together: "I feel that something within tells me 'do the wrong thing,'" because in order to find one's place in the world sometimes it is necessary to take risks. That is what happened to Nevo himself. When he was 28 years old, after graduating with a degree in psychology and being admitted to a master's program, he suddenly perceived that he was no longer interested in becoming a psychologist, but he needed to dedicate himself to writing. "It was not an intellectual understanding, but a struggle within me that led me out of college and into writing. I was pulled by something bigger that accompanied me to fulfill my life in a different way than I and others had imagined. They told me I was crazy to give up everything, but I sensed this was the destiny that awaited me.”

Why writing in particular?
As a child, I changed homes and cities often. My parents would move for work and I would always have to start over in a new school, with new classmates. Because of that I was very shy, quiet. I listened a lot and spoke very little. My home was my suitcase. Then when I was 15, on a scouting trip, I was asked to tell a scary story in the evening around the campfire, before the children got into their sleeping bags. During the trip, as we marched along, a plot began to take shape in my head that proved successful. That evening, through the eyes of those wide-eyed children in the dark, I perceived that I was good at telling stories and that I could do it forever.

What is writing for you? Invention, introspection, confession, healing....
Writing means all those things together. For a story to come into being, something always has to happen, a trigger – whether it's even a blurb in the newspaper or a story overheard on the train. These are things that pass through the filter of my self: writing is a continuous movement between this inside and outside that then unravels throughout the book. I think that this also happens in reading. The reader is constantly moving within and without themself. But the most important thing remains knowing how to look. I gave my students in Turin the task to go to the market and look at people, observing the anatomy of their emotions, their relationships. I don’t want them to take notes, I want them to come back to class with these observations within. To write you have to go after those nuances that make situations and people unique.

In your novels there are always multiple voices, multiple protagonists. As if the story is told from different perspectives. You have said that they are very "democratic" stories and that you try not to give in to the "dictatorship of the narrator," because then you can "rehumanize the way of looking at life in those stories." What do you mean?
My parents, now in their 80s, have always had different opinions, about their house, about a movie, about vacations, about me. They have always lived together and love each other very much. That is how I grew up, with this broadened view of things. Now, when I have a specific idea in mind, I immediately perceive another way of looking, not necessarily in antithesis: a suggestion to think outside the box. Today we tend to limit ourselves to a single point of view, to the labels with which we pigeonhole ourselves and others. A "being in agreement" within which we need to fence ourselves in. Just look at social media. Instead, literature gives us a magical moment whereby it sometimes happens that we feel close to the most distant, where the most estranged becomes familiar. I get emotional when readers tell me that they have identified themselves with the character that is most different from them: the orthodox with the atheist, the woman with the man, the rich with the poor…

You come from a society that has always been marked by conflict, separation, and this is something that emerges especially in your more political novels, Alone and Lost, Neuland, Nostalgia, the so-called "Israeli Trilogy." But the constant melody in your novels remains relationship, friendship and bonds. What makes it possible to keep this “we” alive, even among the strongest polarizations?
In my work as a creative writing teacher, I have travelled almost all over Israel, and during workshops I have often noticed that when people from very different backgrounds write together and open up in their vulnerability, the conflict, at some point, dissolves. It no longer matters if you are an Arab or a descendant of a Holocaust survivor. Because all our wounds are similar. When you are willing to be vulnerable, that is where you meet the other.

I am reminded of Dovra, the protagonist of the third story in Three Stories. Unlike her husband, she tries to recover her relationship with her son despite his contempt and rejection. Perhaps because she does not deny her need to love and be loved. You have three daughters, what does it mean to be a father?
Two of my daughters already live away from home. The third is 12 years old and lives with us. It has been different with each daughter; I have had to discover what it means to be a father with each of them. And I could not have discovered it without my wife. She has a different outlook from mine. And also different solutions. I have an overly analytical and pragmatic approach, which I inherited from my parents who were both very attentive but influenced by their profession as occupational psychologists. My wife always surprises me, she does the opposite of what I would do, she thinks outside the book, and that seems to be what “works” best.

You show a certain sympathy for your characters, you never blame their dissatisfaction, but rather it is the fuel that moves them towards others, to find their place in the world.
When I teach in Turin, I live in an apartment near a church and one day I went inside. I saw five people standing in line and I realized that they were waiting for their turn to go to confession. It was the first time I had seen this. And at that moment I thought that the distance between what we want and what we can do, between imagination and reality, between our ideal and what happens in life, reveals to us what a person is.

Why? What happens in this distance?
It is not a negative thing. The gap you perceive between what you want and what you often find yourself doing is something that makes us feel guilty, causes us pain. But it is also what makes us feel human and not little gods. Looking at those five people who were waiting to go to confession, I thought that if I had been the priest, I would have forgiven them all.

During confession everything can be forgiven.
Really? Is that what happens? In Judaism it is much more complex to ask for forgiveness. I am an atheist, but I think that writing is born out of these wounds that open up in the human soul and into which an unexpected light enters.

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The American writer Flannery O'Connor claimed that "if life satisfied us, doing literature would be meaningless." Do you, like the young protagonists in your novel, Symmetry of Desires, live waiting for what satisfies life to happen?
I remember that when I was young, around the age of 20, I was consumed by a kind of nostalgia and unhappiness, which led me to brood over the past instead of living in the present. When I started writing, I realized I could pour out that sense of melancholy in my characters, and it was really liberating. For example, when my daughters were born and I could not travel anymore, I started fantasizing about South America and wrote Neuland or, when I did not have as much time for friends anymore, I wrote Symmetry of Desires. I even wrote The Ways to Eden, which was born during the first long lockdown in 2020, because life seemed to be reduced to small gestures, impoverished of events and human contact. That novel is the complete opposite of what was happening: the characters are constantly seeking physical contact, wanting to be close. Writing is definitely a way of living life that I miss. For a long time that was enough for me. Now, however, I feel that I have to risk within reality as well.